REVIEW: A Timely Look at P. T. Barnum, One of America's Greatest Hucksters

Screen Shot 2019-08-08 at 7.12.28 PM.png

Barnum; An American Life by Robert Wilson

Simon & Schuster 3452 pp.

By Paul Markowitz

The iconic name of P. T. Barnum, 125 years after his death, still brings to mind the image of the consummate hustler who is remembered primarily for observing with evident satisfaction that “a sucker is born every minute.”  The truth however is much more complex.  He may have been a huckster but he was very much more than that, and he most likely never uttered those famous words.

P. T. Barnum was a uniquely American character representing the best and worst characteristics of our young nation.  In this immensely readable biography, Robert Wilson has given us insights into the most admirable and questionable aspects of a deeply complicated man.

This man who all but perfected “the humbug” would reinvent himself many times during his lengthy career.   He would rise to unimaginable heights only to be followed by substantive disasters.  He would learn from his mistakes and start again, each time becoming a better man in the process.

The subtitle of the book is An American Life.  This is not accidental since one cannot imagine Barnum becoming the sensation he became in another place or at another time.  He was a genius at making the most of his abilities within an industry that was an important factor in the lives of millions of people.  He was a self-made man who not only thrived in the entertainment industry but led it to as-yet unknown heights, to the delight of the adoring public.

Barnum was born in 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut to simple, hard-working folks.  From an early age he was known for his zest for life and his love of a good practical joke.  This was commonly referred to as “Yankee cuteness” and was admired as a personal trait.  He was named after his beloved grandfather, Phineas Taylor, who had exhibited the same proclivities in his youth.  He was good at math, bad at chores, and was always on the lookout for ways to make money.

At the early age of 12 he drove cattle to New York but found his calling working in a series of general stores where he developed bartering and negotiating skills that would serve him well in his future life.  This led to running lotteries in much of Connecticut, where he also learned the value of public promotion and how advertising could greatly improve business.

When he was 16 Barnum’s father died and being the oldest male, he became the head of the family. He would quickly find success buying a porterhouse — a combination bar and steakhouse — and opening a fruit and sweetshop near his hometown.  Having been to New York, he also developed a love for the theater.  At the age of 18 he married Charity Hallett and they settled down above the dry goods, groceries and hardware store while still bringing in $2000 a day in lottery sales.  He had at this early age combined his eye for showmanship and theater with his entrepreneurial skills to become a very successful businessman.  The store, however, was only marginally successful, and the banning of lotteries in 1834 brought the good times to an end.

This significant event would lead to a string of adventures that would make Barnum fame and fortune through successfully combining his love of science, theater, writing, and publicity, to appeal to the public’s appetite for curiosities — all with a dollop of “humbuggery.”  The author does an excellent job of describing how Barnum used all his skills to attract millions, including presidents and royalty, to his series of traveling shows, which presented a wide array of “wonders” to an American public eager to be entertained and educated.. 

Wilson describes with fascinating detail in successive chapters Barnum’s great “finds”; Joyce Heath, the supposed 161 yr. old slave woman who purported to care for George Washington as a young boy; the Fejee Mermaid, that was in fact a monkey body ingeniously attached to a large fish; General Tom Thumb, a precocious, intelligent dwarf who passed himself off as twice his age while doing impressions of Napolean; the Swedish Opera Singer Jenny Lind whose gorgeous voice, naturalistic acting and reputation for purity would attract millions.  In every one of these instances Barnum did not make up the attraction on his own.  He would hear about it, witness it, endeavor to purchase the rights to it, and using his genius for celebrity, publicity, and notoriety would make large amounts of money while pleasing hundreds of thousands in touring shows.

Barnum’s mid-life was difficult.  When he tried businesses outside his purview he had mixed results.  At 41, he decided to purchase the Jerome Clock Company and build a development for it in a nearby town in Connecticut.  The company soon folded, and the development was never completed. Then his first mansion, Iranistan, burned down, and he was forced to declare bankruptcy.

By touring again with Tom Thumb, who had considerable affectation for Barnum and who wanted to assist him in his time of need, and a conducting a solo speaking tour of England on the topic of “A Ruined Man,” he soon replenished his coffers.  He then opened a series of museums that incorporated natural history exhibits, various curiosities, a lecture hall, and a performance space.

The advent of the Civil War brought out Barnum’s strong Union feelings, an increasing abolitionist bent, a strong affinity to his Universalist upbringing and a love for President Lincoln.  Still, he held close to his area of expertise, at times in ways that are deeply problematic to our modern sensibilities.  With the publication and notoriety of the Origin of Species, he would tour a four-foot tall mentally-challenged microcephalitic black man named William Henry Johnston as a potential link between man and ape.  He would sign up another dwarf named George Washington Morrison Nutt or Commodore Nutt who would be received by Abraham Lincoln.  He would marry off Tom Thumb to Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump, a “plumply attractice dwarf” known as the Queen of Beauty.

As he turned 50, Barnum became increasingly interested in philanthropic and political enterprises.  He became an adviser to a new museum.  He ran successfully for the Connecticut legislature four times, served a term as mayor of Bridgeport, and ended his political career with an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate, losing to a distant cousin.  Barnum’s political life was quite honorable by all accounts.  He funded many municipal projects and donated sizable amounts of money to Tufts University toward the end of his life.

His final chapter was a combination of his purchase of Jumbo the Elephant from the London Zoo, the starting of the hugely successful Barnum and Bailey Traveling Circus, and the writing of his voluminous and very successful biography Struggles and Triumph of Forty Years Reflections.

It all added up to a life that was quintessentially American in character..Barnum rose to great highs and sank to great lows, saw successes and disasters, and grew in maturity. He always strove to give joy and thrills to his audiences so they would never feel they didn’t get their money’s worth.

Barnum’s legacy is particularly relevant today as lines between politics and entertainment seem to be permanently blurred.  The similarities of this self-made celebrity to some of today’s leading figures, however, have their limits. Barnum was, in the end, a man of strong ideals and convictions, and philanthropy — a huckster, whose heart was in the right place.